Years ago, I had a client who struggled with being overweight. Sally felt fat, unattractive, and hopeless. During one of our sessions, she shared something that had happened to her a decade earlier. Sally and her husband were eating dinner one night, and he made a snide remark about her weight. He immediately apologized and wished that he could have taken it back. But Sally couldn’t let it go, and she added it to her long list of self-effacing comments about her struggle.
When we met, our work together wasn’t focused on fixing what her husband had said. She acknowledged that his apology was sincere and that he felt very guilty for his remark. Rather, I helped her recognize that her suffering was coming from inside. I provided her tools to stop playing the endless stream of self-critical comments in her head and enjoy life instead. As a result, her suffering ceased and was replaced by an increased sense of happiness. Sally’s example illustrates how when we understand the key elements of happiness, we will be happy…it’s that simple. So why is happiness so elusive? In this blog post, I’ll illustrate the fundamentals of happiness and how to develop more of it.
Happiness requires you to get out of your head
I’m a licensed clinical psychologist. For nearly 25 years, I’ve worked with clients who come to see me because their lives are difficult and they’re looking for solutions. Over the course of my career, I’ve worked with individuals who’ve experienced incredibly painful events. Sometimes, my clients need help immediately. When we speak, they share their suicidal thoughts and seek my support. So what do I say during these calls?
I could spend hours on the phone with them. I could have them meet in my office right away. Or I could do what I’ve always done—I listen to what is wearing on their hearts, and then I provide them the following advice: Go for a walk for 30 minutes to an hour, and focus on being present with the outdoors. If, after their walk, they still feel just as despondent, then they should give me another call. The result? In nearly 25 years, I’ve rarely received the second call.
So why does this work? Because of one of the most important insights about suffering: It comes from our thoughts. Yes, we have painful experiences. But there is a difference between suffering and pain. Pain is a physical or emotional sensation that we feel immediately, and then it passes. Suffering is the subsequent story that follows the pain. The stream of thoughts could last hours, days, months, and even years after the painful experience. We may repeatedly tell ourselves, “This is going to hurt forever!” or “Life is ALWAYS so unfair to me!”
Once we stop the commentary and direct our focus on the present moment, suddenly all is well. There’s nothing we can’t handle as long as we learn to not identify with the story that follows the actual event.
Happiness two step
First, how do we avoid succumbing to the story? We still our minds. When we’re able to do this, we cease creating stories and the suffering ends.
Second, when we identify with the present moment and focus on the beauty that surrounds us, we increase happiness. There is always something beautiful to identify with. A prisoner may be locked in solitary confinement, and he or she may appreciate the morning sun that shines in the window. Or you may be with someone who is breathing her last breathe and listen to her final heartbeats, which fill you with awe and appreciation for life itself. These may seem like exceptional experiences, but as long as one person on the planet is able to find beauty in even the most adverse circumstances, so can you and I.
The Happiness Challenge
Happiness isn’t mysterious. It’s not elusive. In fact, it’s our natural state. When our minds are still, fully present with the here-and-now, and without the mental commentary, then we experience a peace that surpasses understanding. If you’re skeptical, then I present the following challenge to you:
Go outside and find a place where you’re not surrounded by many people. This may be a park, meadow, lake, or beach. Find an object to focus on, such as a flower, tree, bird, or water. For one to ten minutes, draw all of your attention onto what you’ve chosen to focus on. Listen to it, watch it, just be with it. Resist the urge to analyze it, or create a story about it. Rather still your mind and just observe. After your allotted time is up, reflect about what you just did. Were you sad? Were you depressed? Most likely, you’ll discover that if you were 100 percent present with an object, you were happy and at peace. All was (and is) well. Congratulations! You’ve just experienced a taste of happiness.
Happiness is our birthright
Being able to keep our minds fully present and still is a skill. It’s actually the state that we were born with. If you’ve ever observed young children, this is the state that they’re in all day long. But through conditioning and cognitive development, we've forgotten how to do this. With practice, however, this skill can become ours again. It’s our natural state, which is an ever-present, effortless happiness. In the end, it's available to all who seek it.